Police officer tells how he overcame stuttering

By Sade Cox and Andrea Parr

College students have anxiety when it comes to speaking in front of an audience, or a classroom full of their peers. Therefore, most students try to avoid taking communication courses that involve public speaking, or postpone the courses until senior year.

Speech communication professor Meghan Gill uses the “King’s Speech Method” to assist students in overcoming fear of public speaking. She invites Officer Ken Teets of the Newton Police Department to speak to her classes about overcoming speech difficulties.

Teets always wanted to be an officer of law just as his father was growing up in Newton N.J. At 5 years old, Teets began to struggle with the speech impairment stuttering. It led his loved ones, friends, and teachers to give him a reputation of being “a little slow,” which eventually left him as an outcast.

“I remember taking the approach that if I did not speak to anyone, no one would notice my stutter,” said Teets, who faced many challenges because of his stuttering. His teachers and classmates teased him for it in school.

“When I turned seven, or eight, in grammar school my speech started to get worse…There were times where it took me three to four minutes to get out one sentence,” said Teets. Teachers would purposely skip over him when reading out loud because he would take too long and that could mess up their schedule. In adolescence, his speech got worse.

“At this time, that was my final breaking point, and I just gave up on school and myself,” said Teets. His school sent him to take several speech classes to improve his stutter. However, teachers not trained in speech therapy taught the classes he describes as “a complete joke.”

“It was a living hell,” Teets said. He rarely spoke to any students at his high school, except a select group of friends. “I had horrifying experiences speaking to strangers, answering the phone, ordering at restaurants, public speaking, and speaking to anyone in authority.”

At 16, Teets decided he wanted to change and learn how to control his stutter. He was directed to a speech therapy doctor in Manhattan, Dr. Martin Schwartz. After attending a conference, he enrolled in the daily class to learn Schwartz’s Passive Airflow technique.

Schwartz instructed Teets and nine other students to call people on the phone to ask for directions, and go to restaurants and order from the menu by reading out loud.

“He had us walk around New York with a huge pink button saying ‘Ask me a question, I am a stutter’,” said Teets. He taught Teets how to speak accurately again. “The two weeks with Dr. Schwartz changed my life. I left the class there feeling that I could overcome my disability.”

Even with the great progress he gained, Teets his past reputation was harder to change than his stutter. Then, his junior year, he rented the movie “Rocky.” It inspired him to make changes in his body by working out everyday.

After high school, Teets pursued his goal of becoming a police officer in his hometown Newton.

“Everyone, including my parents, my teachers and friends, all told me there would be no way I could be a police officer,” he said. “Especially in the town that I grew up in, because they all knew me as a stutter and my reputation.”

Teets was passed over by the police department the first two times he took the exam to join, despite passing. When his father refused to put in a good word for him, Teets decided to take the exam only once more.

“I knew this was the last time I had a chance to be hired,” Teets said. “I approached the captain, who my dad had hired years earlier and was his training officer, and I asked if he would give me a chance as a dispatcher.”

In July of 1997, that captain took a chance on hiring Teets in as a dispatcher. Through the next few years, he had to prove he was able to do the job to his superiors and fellow officers. Three years later, he was hired as a Newton police officer. 

“When I passed the academy and was sworn as a police officer, it was by far one of the most memorable days,” said Teets. 

Though his journey was strenuous, Teets says he didn’t do it alone. His wife, then girlfriend, has supported him throughout.

Today, Teets gives presentations to speak to public speaking classes at Kean University and Montclair State University to inform students about his disability. Gill invites him to her COMM 1402 classes as a way to encourage her students before their first presentation.

“Are you familiar with the movie ‘King’s Speech’, did you do exercises like similar like he did?” asked Catherine Merendeiro, a Biology major. 

“As a matter of fact I did,” answered Teets. “Especially sounding out the vowels. The reason why I am actually up here is because of the King’s Speech.”

When asked how he felt to be speaking to the class, Teets responded that he felt a sense of pride. 

“When I stand in front of an audience, it gives me a great deal of pride to know that I have accomplished so much in my life and I can do this,” Teets said. “I can conquer the naysayers and be proud of my own accomplishments. I don’t let my stutter beat me. I beat it!”

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